Inside the Protein that Ponders

Even cells need time to pause and reflect. /

“Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Give careful thought to your ways.’” (Hag. 1:5)

Growth. Progress. Efficiency. They drive business practices, church planning, and Western society’s ideals. Early in my work as a cancer researcher, I studied these principles within the microcosm of a single cell.

In the process, I learned that healthy cells model the importance of thinking before you act, of reflecting before rushing ahead. At a microscopic level, our bodies aren’t just about “grow or die” absolutes. They pause and take stock of how they’re growing.

One of the most important tumor suppressors is known simply as p53, reflecting its weight of 53 kDa (kilodaltons, a unit of molecular weight). This simple protein rose to fame in my early years in graduate school, becoming Science magazine’s molecule of the year in 1993.

From Villain to Hero

In 1979, when scientists first found p53, they thought they had discovered a cancer-causing gene. Put simply, it had been hanging out with a bad crowd: tumor viruses (for example, human papillomavirus, or HPV, which can cause cervical cancer).

There are many important differences between viruses and cancers, but they share a desire: progress. Growth takes precedence over all else. When a virus invades a cell, it drives the cell cycle full speed ahead in order to manufacture more viruses.

At the time, researchers were trying to figure out which genes from these viruses were responsible for causing cancer. This new protein, p53, kept turning up.

Its true role emerged eight years later. When researchers loaded cells with extra p53 protein, cells either stopped growing entirely or went through a special self-destruct ...

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Also in this Issue

Issue 22 / May 14, 2015
  1. Editors’ Note

    Issue 22: Martin Luther, pensive proteins, Lego churches, and Ascension

  2. No Iota in Vain: Martin Luther’s ‘Great and Worthy Undertaking’

    The reformer translated the New Testament in ten weeks—and with strong convictions. /

  3. The Real Lego Church

    The brickmaker has a history with houses of worship. /

  4. Ascension Day

    ‘He took us with him to the heart of things’ /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 22: Links to amazing stuff /

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